By Kathryn Matthews
Saying “I’m sorry for your loss...” is never easy. Especially to the grieving widow of President John F. Kennedy.
On a recent Saturday evening at Oblong Books and Music
in Rhinebeck, author Paul De Angelis
swallowed hard after reading a letter sent by a Navy chaplain to the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, one of many such condolence letters compiled and annotated by De Angelis in his just-published Dear Mrs. Kennedy
(St. Martin’s Press, $19.99). He took a moment. With misty eyes, he looked up at the gathered crowd and said: “That letter gets me every time.”
DeAngelis, who lives in West Cornwall, Connecticut, is the co-publisher and editorial director of About Town
, a quarterly community guide covering northern Dutchess and southern Columbia Counties, which he founded with Gail Jaffe-Benneck in 1997. Dear Mrs. Kennedy
, is the first byline-authored book for DeAngelis, a veteran writer and editorial director at such publishing companies as St. Martin’s Press, E.P. Dutton and Kodansha America. Until this, he had declined the author spotlight, choosing instead to ghostwrite books.
Two subjects DeAngelis frequently writes about—American culture and politics—converge in Dear Mrs. Kennedy
, illuminating a period of history that he remembers well.
DeAngelis was a ninth grader at Leland Jr. High School in Chevy Chase, Maryland on November 22, 1963, when the school made a shocking announcement: the President had been shot. More news: he was seriously wounded. Then, abruptly: President John F. Kennedy was dead.
“The school dismissed us. We walked home, and all the mothers in my neighborhood were waiting in their yards for their kids. We were just shocked and heartbroken,” he recalled.
In the dark days that followed, Americans—the famous, the infamous and ordinary citizens—channeled their collective grief into condolence letters to the President’s widow. They expressed their deep sympathy for her loss and admiration for her deportment, while sharing their own emotions about the tragedy.
Who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy? Everyone. Winston Churchill. Lauren Bacall. Noel Coward. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chiang Kai-shek. Nikita Khruschev. Josephine Baker. Children. Priests. Soldiers. Prison inmates.
All told, well over a million condolence letters from the U.S. and around the world poured into the White House. Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s social secretary, undertook the mammoth task of sorting through the mail—with the help of 300 volunteers, many of them women in the First Lady’s social circle. A gracious Jackie pledged that these letters would be displayed at the future John F. Kennedy Library for all to see.
She meant every word in the moment.
A month before he was assassinated, Kennedy had picked out the site for the JFK Library in Boston. Fifteen years passed. By the time the Kennedy Library finally opened in 1979, part of the collection had suffered water damage while in storage. In 1983, the archival staff applied “scientific sampling” (e.g., keeping every seventh letter) to further cull the remaining (undamaged) correspondence. The final collection—some 204,000 letters—continued to reside at the Library in relative obscurity.
Enter Jay Mulvaney. He had become familiar with this collection of condolence mail while writing several books about the Kennedy family. Mulvaney proposed another Kennedy-themed book—based on the letters—to St. Martin’s Press, who green-lighted the project. In 2007, several months later—after copying nearly a thousand letters—Mulvaney abruptly died of a heart attack.
The project found its way to DeAngelis, whose suburban Washington D.C. upbringing and enduring interest in American politics and culture seemingly came full-circle.
DeAngelis (above) grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, spending some of his childhood abroad—in Greece (where he was born) and in Bologna, Italy (where he went to fourth and fifth grades)—before attending prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, then college at Harvard. After graduating, DeAngelis spent over two decades in Manhattan, where he worked in book publishing before moving full-time to Tivoli in Dutchess County, then, to West Cornwall in Litchfield County with his wife Elisabeth Kaestner and their daughter Addie.
DeAngelis described his parents as “FDR Liberals who were pro-JFK." During the Kennedy administration, his father, who had worked for the Bureau of the Budget in Washington, then USAID, had run into the President on several occasions. In their Chevy Chase neighborhood, Roger Hilsman, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, and his family lived on one side of the DeAngelis’; on the other side, two doors down, was Betty Smith, Caroline Kennedy’s dance teacher.
“If we were not exactly rubbing shoulders with Camelot, we felt that we were rubbing shoulders with those who were,” said DeAngelis with a chuckle.
For the few hundred letters featured in the book, DeAngelis sifted through 10,000-15,000 pieces of condolence mail. Most striking, he noted, was how people reacted to the tragedy in so many different ways. Some voiced their suspicion about conspiracies. Others reacted religiously, asking Jackie to “trust in God”. Some shared their dreams in which the President had appeared to them. Still others re-dedicated themselves to living up to JFK’s ideals. A few who expressed sympathy also had personal agendas, like the mother of a Texas country music singer who asked the First Lady to help arrange a recording for a song that her son had written about the President’s assassination.
“This is a very sociologically and anthropologically significant collection,” said DeAngelis, whose deftly written and eloquent narrative lends historic context, illuminating the national mood and mindset of the time
His biggest challenge was locating the original authors for permissions to include their letters in the book. Luckily, DeAngelis had help, including his wife Elisabeth Kaestner and two colleagues. There were also some regrets. The Kennedy estate did not consent to having Jackie’s letters published. And tracking down government officials outside the US sometimes proved a Kafka-esque exercise in futility. “I had really wanted to include Indira Ghandi’s letter, but never received official permission to do so,” he said.
Tuckerman had supervised the sorting of some 1.25 million pieces of condolence mail, separating those that came from personal friends and VIPs and those from citizens and organizations. The process took over a year.
Old school to the core, Jackie felt compelled to respond. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1964, Tuckerman and her crew obliged her request, sending out nearly 750,000 acknowledgement cards from Mrs. Kennedy. “These notes are now highly prized objects,” said DeAngelis.
A close friend and classmate of Jackie Kennedy at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT, Tuckerman was chosen by the First Lady to be her social secretary. She now lives near DeAngelis in Salisbury, Connecticut. And, in neighborly fashion, she participated in DeAngelis’ October 30th reading of Dear Mrs. Kennedy
at Cornwall Library
. (Her niece, Phyllis Palmer, attended the Oblong-Rhinebeck reading.)
Forty-seven years have passed since JFK’s assassination. Camelot was not as it had appeared. Nor is Kennedy’s reputation, which as DeAngelis delicately pointed out, “has gone through many evolutions”.
The letters, however, remain vivid, offering an authentic window to the past. For young people, such as his 23-year-old daughter, the takeaway of the book, said DeAngelis, is a vital sense of an event that forever shaped their parents’ lives.
Paul DeAngelis will be reading at the Hunt Library, Falls Village, CT; December 4, 4 p.m.